Sometimes I can hear it in a parent’s voice when they first call to make an appointment, the trepidation, the guilt, the anger. “My kids is out of control.” They may describe a child being suspended from school or day care, or being tearful all the time. Often times the root of these concerns comes down to emotional regulation.
Emotional Regulation is a skill that isn’t innate, we learn it, we watch those around us for cues on how to do it. It takes practice, just like anything else. Generally we get better at it as we age. Think of a newborn, the response to pain, sadness, unmet needs is all the same, crying--it’s the only form of communication they know so far, and it’s highly effective. As children age they develop more sophisticated ways of managing strong emotions. In play therapy I see it as one of my primary goals to teach children feelings identification and expression. I use role plays, sand tray, puppets and games to accomplish this. A child who acts aggressively or loses control and throws crying fits are still trying to fine tune how to express “big feelings.” I often see this in the school setting, teachers are frustrated with children who act out, and typically these same children struggle with social connections because their emotions are so unpredictable. If you are nodding your head, thinking, that’s my boy! You are not alone. This is a very common concern parents report during our first visit.
Parents tend to feel instant relief just reframing this concern into a need for skills, rather than just “bad behavior.” As I stated, emotional regulation is learned. I suggest that parents begin with this one subtle intervention.
- Label emotions for your child
For example, your daughter sulks away to her room and avoids everyone in the house, she begins crying and kicking the wall. You might say “You seem like you might be sad about something?” This not only validates her feelings and shows that you are noticing, but it may put a word to a complex emotion she is feeling. This is a starting point for regulation emotion, connecting the feeling inside your body (lump in throat, tears, weight on your chest) to the emotion.
As adults, we forget how difficult it can be to navigate life as a child when “big emotions” do come up. Typically, by the time we are adults we’ve accrued quite a toolbox of things to do when we are upset or overwhelmed. Children are just building this tool box. When they are faced with events in life that stir up an emotional response (whether that’s something as simple as not liking what’s for dinner, or the death of a parent) they are using the tools they have so far. Life tends to constantly feed us experiences where we learn more effective ways to cope, kids are on that road too.
As a child therapist it’s my job to join them and provide some hands on ways to improve these skills.